By Michelle Love
Photos By Blair Ramsey
What it always has been, however, is a constant in the Vestavia Hills community for good food and a warm welcome. That was always the goal for its owners, the Shunnarah family, even before the restaurant opened its doors in 2005.
“My husband’s family has been in restaurants for years and years,” says Rana Shunnarah, the family’s matriarch and the restaurant’s owner. “I’m from Chicago originally. While I didn’t know how to cook in restaurants, I learned how to cook for my family, my mom, my aunts, all that good stuff.”
The Shunnarah family has opened several successful restaurants from delis, barbecue and what Rana calls “American cuisine.” When her husband’s uncle approached them about going into a partnership owning a Mediterranean restaurant, Rana and her husband were nervous but excited to try the venture. The partnership only lasted two months, but that’s when the core of what The Olive Branch now is was born.
The idea going into Olive Branch was that it would be food that Rana knew and had a passion for. Eighteen years later and that hasn’t changed.
“We cook here like how I would cook at home,” she says. “We try to keep everything the way I would cook for my family, you know? We tweaked a couple of things, but it’s pretty much exactly how I would do it for my family.”
The restaurant has remained in the same location in Vestavia Hills since it opened. Its familiar, yet simple architecture has a few elements that remind you of its Mediterranean-inspired menu inside.
The restaurant boasts white columns by the front door, and the large white sign that says, “The Olive Branch,” paired with a drawing of a dove holding its namesake in its beak. While the building itself may be small, the restaurant holds several tables that can be separated into two and four-tops. Guests can choose to enjoy the weather on the patio, inside at a table or closer to the action at the chef’s counter, where they can see the staff preparing the dishes.
Rana says she and her husband were very nervous opening a restaurant back in 2005 since at the time Birmingham’s options for Mediterranean food were limited, but once the partnership fell through and Rana took charge of the menu, everything fell into place.
When the restaurant first opened its doors, it was called Lavender’s. After the partnership split, Rana says her husband’s uncle wanted to take the name with him. Finding themselves nameless, Rana and her husband asked the community to help them find a fitting name.
“We decided between The Olive Branch and Cahaba Kabob,” Rana says. “So, we put up a sign as people came in that asked, ‘What name do you like better?’ We did that for about a month, and Olive Branch was hands-down the winner.”
That community support has always been a top priority for Rana. Rana estimates that 70 percent of their clientele counts as regulars, and she says they’re always willing to contribute back to the community.
“I am thrilled to hear people say they still love us after all these years and for them to praise how consistent we are,” she says. “It’s very gratifying. We’re very blessed, honestly. We’re super lucky to have the community support and our regulars who are such loyal patrons.”
Rana says the menu is very similar to the original menu from 2005, but it has evolved over the years, adding more Middle Eastern items along the way. Whether a menu item has been tweaked over the years or if a new item has been added, one thing has always remained the same: everything is prepared fresh daily and made to order.
Staples on the menu have always been kabobs, gyros and sandwiches, although the menu offers a diverse array of flavorful favorites. The Frank’s Philly sandwich, a popular menu item, came about one day when Rana claims her husband “got bored” of what he was eating every day.
“He was like, ‘Take the steak and add this and that and just make me a sandwich with that,’ and people started to catch on and were like, ‘Oh, this is really good!’” Rana recalls.
A star standout on the menu is definitely the stuffed squash, a much-coveted item by patrons. The dish consists of two stuffed yellow squash filled with sirloin steak and rice served with two stuffed grape leaves on the side. Over the years, it has become a favorite among patrons that never disappoints in flavor. One bite of the stuffed squash, and newcomers instantly become regulars.
“We’re the only restaurant in town that I know of that sells the stuffed squash,” Rana says. “It’s a staple in our diet. Not having it on the menu just didn’t make sense to me.”
The Olive Branch’s beef kabobs are also a testament to how the restaurant refuses to cut corners on quality. Rana says while most restaurants will use sirloin in their kabobs, they have always used beef tenderloin as it creates a juicier and more tender cut of beef.
“For me, I always want fresh ingredients, I want the best of the best that I can possibly get,” she says. “I wouldn’t serve my family any less, so why would I serve you any less? If I don’t want to eat it, I don’t want to serve it.”
Their guests’ feedback is also a huge asset to the restaurant, as Rana says over the years they’ve listened intently to anything their guests say they like or don’t like. Since everything is made to order, they also make sure to listen to people’s food sensitivities, so everyone can enjoy The Olive Branch menu without worry
“We’re very aware of people’s sensitivities,” she says. “If someone needs to eat gluten free, we can take care of that. Same with people with like a shellfish allergy. We’re very family-friendly, you know, there’s nothing pretentious about us. We want people to come here and eat and be happy.”
At its core, The Olive Branch has always been a family restaurant. After a family member who focused mainly on the restaurant’s management left the business, Rana found herself balancing everything that goes into a restaurant. That, she says, is when she started pulling in the rest of her family like having her kids help wait tables.
Rana was at the restaurant every day until about a year ago, then her son Alex stepped up and took over. Alex is no stranger to the business, however, as he grew up washing dishes, bussing tables and everything else his family needed him to do if they needed someone last minute.
Alex said it’s a “good feeling,” seeing how much people still love his family’s business and seeing people enjoy the food they put out into the community. Having learned everything related to the various ins and outs of the restaurant from his family, he says he wants to continue to bring the same quality of service and food that they have provided to the community for so long.
“Our top priorities are for the food to be great and the service to be great,” Rana says. “We want people to come back again and again and enjoy their experience with us.”
Visit The Olive Branch at 3236 Cahaba Heights Road Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m.-8 p.m. or on Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Patrons can view the menu and get in touch with the staff at theolivebranchbham.com.